The 5 Abilities Mindful Leaders Cultivate
By James Van Auken
People constantly wrestle with themselves. An impulse, a habit, an expectation—juxtaposed by a limitation, governance, or imposed denial of desire—all create disorienting dilemmas that can drive behavior and diminish mental resources. And in this internal wrestling contest of impulse, desire, and habit on one team and moral reasoning, responsibility, and “doing the right thing” on the other, a cyclical battle pervades.
In our contemporary society, we are offered everything: limitless entertainment of all varieties with a near equal amount of self-help opportunities. But what we choose depends on which part of ourselves is winning the wrestling match of the moment. Many of us are constantly weighing out what we need in the moment or what we need in order to get through what we’re going through. What type of reward do we need for our hard work and endurance: is it a decadent dessert that we deserve, a vacation, something new and exciting like a new novel, or car, or outfit? How do we navigate ourselves in this instant gratification, credit card approved, help yourself world of ours? Where is the manual of me?
Life is challenging enough as it is (or it will be soon enough). Life has a way of lifting us up and pulling us down, and that really affects how we are in a given moment. When things are going well, our perception of life is happy and light; and when things are not going well, our perception of life is dark and heavy. Navigating the ups and downs of life is probably the biggest challenge we face as a human being—how can I truly enjoy the ups and endure the downs? Our human struggle is real.
Amplifying this struggle is the public stage on which we live and act out our life, especially when we have job positions that include leadership responsibilities—we become even more visible and observed. Adding to this, leadership has been called “one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth” (Burns, 1978).
Yet a very simple option for us to turn to, as many of us have been taught (or forced to follow) is a simple motto of, “suck it up!” “Quit thinking, quit wallowing, get over it, suck it up, and move on.” Simple—life’s hard, suck it up. During a recent presentation to a group of project managers, one of the participants phrased it to me to like this: “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘suck it up, buttercup!’”
This particular method has been a norm with the baby boomer generation, and now with the millennials entering the workplace, there is a distinct disconnect between expectations and needs. Indeed, a generational shift is occurring in the workplace. What worked before (suck it up!) is not working now, at least not in the way it was. Denying our human experience, ignoring thoughts and emotions, neglecting to notice the internal struggle is harmful. The workplace is filled with stress, and if our contemporary society is not trained on how to deal with stress, which it isn’t, then the unmitigated stress will cascade into physical and mental health issues. In reality, the “suck it up” generation is going to need to “suck it up” and begin turning toward their leadership styles and begin to notice how they affect those around them and the workplace environment.
Mindfulness, a word our society is beginning to see more commonly, is a method of approaching daily life that provides a way for people to begin to notice their internal situation and instead of automatically reacting to it, we actually begin to inquire about it—to take some perspective on our life and situation. Mindfulness, then, maybe an extremely valuable framework for us to consider in navigating the contemporary demands of being a human being.
Thankfully, a wealth of research has been conducted on mindfulness since 1979. Research has shown that mindfulness reduces stress and stress reactivity (Galantino, Baime, Maguire, Szapary, & Farrar, 2005; Wolever, Bobinet, McCabe, Mackenzie, Fekete, Kusnick, & Baime, 2012; Weinstein, Brown, & Ryan, 2009; Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, and Cordova, 2005), that it reduces negative coping mechanisms (Grégoire, Lachance, & Taylor, 2015), and that prolonged mindfulness meditation practice can actually change the circuitry in the brain (Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, Schumacher, Resenkranz, Muller et al., 2003), retraining ourselves to buffer our reactivity from stimuli, providing space for improved decision making. Research on mindfulness in the workplace (Hülsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013; Krasner, Epstein, Beckman, Suchman, Chapman, Mooney, & Quill, 2013) shows that employees report job improvements, decreases in burnout, and an increase in resilience. Yet, research on mindfulness and leadership (Reb, Narayanan, & Chaturvedi, 2014) has only been recently conducted; and while the results are promising, there is more that we need to know.
Noticing this deficit of research on mindfulness and leadership, I conducted a research study (Van Auken, 2019), and interviewed leaders of different ages, races, genders, and industries who believed that mindfulness affected their leadership practice. What I found was a holistic model of how mindfulness integrates into how these “leaders” live their lives in a very intentional way.
Presented here are five building blocks to effectively bring mindfulness into your daily life.
1—Building Your Personal Mindfulness Practice
Building your personal mindfulness practice can be very simple. The idea is to bring a practice into your life that you can consistently work with. Physical exercises or movement-based practices such as walking, running, bike riding, or yoga will work well. The key, though, is that the physical practice has to be tied to your mental focus. You wouldn’t go on a walk to ruminate about the day or catch up with neighbors, rather you would focus on your body in action—noticing your footsteps, feeling into your body, noticing your breathing—uniting your mind and body. This is a grounding practice, bringing you out of your thinking mind and your emotional affect from the day. Sitting practices work as well, just focusing on a constant in the body, such as the in-breath and out-breath, or the feeling of the pulse. Again, the point is to shift into present moment focus, bringing the mind and body together, letting the thoughts, ruminations, and emotions settle.
2—Building Your Ability to be Mindful Toward Yourself Throughout the Day
Now you are bringing your mindfulness practice into your life-in-action, onto the playing field. The ability to be mindful toward yourself stems from your grounding practice. Being mindful toward yourself is your opportunity to notice what is occurring as it is occurring; that is, noticing where your attention is focused while sensing into a broader awareness of conditions surrounding yourself. A crucial element is giving yourself the ability to pause, slow down, stop, or step away from what is occurring if you need to. Gain perspective on yourself and the cause of what is occurring in the present moment. How is your mood, what emotions are present, what thoughts are driving these conditions? Inquire within, gain perspective, achieve some insight, and with enhanced discernment (from your self-inquiry) choose your response(s), and reemerge into your life.
Now it is vital that as you are beginning to be mindful toward yourself that you bring in kindness, compassion, and non-judgment toward yourself! We can be our own worst critics or our own best coaches. Treat yourself kindly. This is a mindfulness practice; it takes time, repetition, and space. Give yourself the freedom to generate a solid practice, just as you would to a child learning something new.
3—Building Your Ability to be Present with and for Others
Now that you have a grounding practice and you have become more mindful toward yourself, you can begin to extend this practice outward toward others. Being present with others requires you to begin to explore and understand what is yours and what is the other person’s. This means that some of the things that you experience with other people are actually your own reactivity to stimuli that are presented. These reactions of yours could be from past experiences or from your expectations upon the future. The key here is to gain discernment on what is yours and what is someone else’s. Then, being present for others becomes a practice of active listening combined with self-regulation of your attention, emotions, and reactivity.
Again, bring in the same humanistic approach that you have toward yourself—kindness, compassion, non-judgment—and extend that outward to others. Be kind, compassionate, and empathetic (when possible) toward others, and you will likely find improvements in your relationships as well as new insights into yourself and others.
4—Building Your Ability to be Present with a Group
Extending further out from 1) your grounding practice, 2) being mindful toward self, and 3) being present with others, is 4) the ability to be present with a group. This is scaling it up a bit and it takes practice. Similarly to how you are being present with others, being present with a group includes maintaining self-awareness and then extends to a group awareness—noticing what is occurring within the group and with the individuals in the room.
As you practice this, you may notice that not everyone is able to objectively view what is playing out in the group—you are likely more aware and more quickly able to perceive what is actually happening than anyone else in the room. When you are ready to do so, you can begin to tactfully help the group to see what is present; and with the same skills that you use on yourself and with others, you can help the group to manage their own emotions and reactions. This takes practice, but it can become a highly valuable attribute and skill that you can offer.
5—Building Your Ability to Mindfully Shift your Focus and Attention
In order to navigate the present moment in whatever situation you find yourself, you will benefit from gaining the ability to mindfully shift your focus and attention. This means that you have gained the discernment and awareness to notice where your attention is focused and then choosing where you want or need to be focused. For example, if you are in a group setting and someone says something that really bothers you that causes an emotional reaction, you can shift your focus to your grounding practice—may be feeling your feet on the floor, noticing an in breath and out breath—gain an understanding of what just happened, and label it (“Wow, that comment just made me really angry/sad/frustrated/scared.”), and choose your response in an informed way, not reacting, but choosing.
This scaling out of your mindfulness practice to being present allows for you to shift back to your grounding practice at any time—you need to be grounded in order to be present for others or a group. Additionally, in order to be present for others, you have to get your self out of the way, not in a denial, but in a kind, self-aware way. Being present depends upon your ability to self-regulate your attention, emotions, and reactivity, which is generated by your ability to be mindful toward self, which depends upon your personal mindfulness practice. It all connects.
In conclusion, while there is no manual for navigating the contemporary demands of everyday life, the “suck it up!” generation has presented us with the opportunity to approach life differently than before. We can approach daily life in a way that leads to more self-awareness, more kindness, and compassion, and to be present. This mindful approach, presented above, is stackable and scalable, leading to authenticity, work-life balance, and emotional freedom.
James Van Auken, Ph.D. is the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Atlantic University, where he helped to develop graduate programs on mindful leadership. He also regularly teaches and presents on mindfulness and leadership.
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